Leonard Felson
Sep 11, 2018

Toad’s Place A Music Landmark for More than Four Decades


It’s the New Haven icon that isn’t Yale. Stately university buildings neighbor the landmark institution called Toad’s Place, the York Street nightclub near Broadway, which turns 43 years old this year.



Once the original Yale Co-op, the building was also a popular restaurant called Hungry Charlie’s in the 1960s. It turned into a tavern for a spell until a former Culinary Institute of America student opened a French restaurant in 1974, naming it Toad’s Place. It was an inside joke, a term the restaurateur, Michael Spoerndle, used as a child when his parents, self-described homebodies or “couch potatoes,” would go out to eat, a rare act for them and far less frequent a generation ago.

With his two co-owners, Spoerndle gradually brought in bluegrass and cover bands to offer diners entertainment. The restaurant failed, but the music struck a chord (no pun intended), and by 1976 it had morphed into a live music venue.

Since then, Toad’s Place, called New Haven’s living room for great music, has drawn a veritable who’s who of rock, jazz, country, folk, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop artists to the club. Five years ago, “Rolling Stone” magazine named it one of the top 20 venues in the country, noting its national fame for two iconic shows less than six months apart.

The first, its biggest claim to history, came when the Rolling Stones played a surprise concert before they began a 1989 tour. Seven hundred fans filled the club; tickets were $3 each. Five months later, in January 1990, Bob Dylan played his longest-ever show (more than five hours) at the club before starting his own national tour.

Other famous names have performed at Toad’s too, some before they were big, like Phish (twice in the early 90s) and R.E.M., Talking Heads, and Black Eyed Peas. The back of Toad’s Place t-shirts are covered with the names of virtually every band that have performed inside the 7,000-square-foot club, capacity 1,000. Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Bon Jovi, Beck, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, B.B. King, Dave Matthews, Wilco, David Bowie. On and on goes the list.

“Toad’s has a unique vibe,” says Jack Reich, the club’s national booking director from his office at The Strand in Providence, a ballroom and theater. “Not too many rock clubs have been in the same location for so many years.

“The sound and lighting systems are top notch and the intimacy of the room makes it a special place to see a show,”        says Rich.

Spoerndle’s two partners eventually moved on. By serendipity, a new partner emerged, Brian Phelps, who was working at a karate school on nearby Broadway when a vandal broke through the school door, stealing the school’s sign. Phelps went searching for it, believing it hadn’t gone far when he found it around the corner at Toad’s Place. Phelps talked to Spoerndle, the thief was arrested, the two became friends, and in the fall of 1976, Phelps was hired as the club manager, learning on the job how to book, promote and run the club.

Eventually, Phelps became co-owner, taking control in 1995. Spoerndle, who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, died in 2011.

“I never imagined this,” says Phelps, a New Haven native, from his office above the main room where the big acts perform. “If that incident didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be here.”

Reminiscing about the Stones and Dylan shows, Phelps sounds like a ballplayer reliving a momentous home run he hit, even if the gigs landed at Toads because both the Stones and Dylan wanted an intimate club setting before heading off to the big coliseums across the country.


Phelps talks that way about Billy Joel too. He played in 1980 for two nights, recording a song at Toad’s for his album “Songs in the Attic,” before selling out the 16,606-seat Hartford Civic Center (now the XL Center) two more nights. “People always loved Billy Joel,” Phelps says.

Other bands too played Toad’s to warm up before bigger venues, including the rock band O.A.R., who performed the following night at Madison Square Garden in New York.

“We try to be a total night club with all different styles of music,” says Phelps. “Back in the ’80s through the early ’90s, we were doing mostly rock-oriented stuff. Then hip-hop came in and started getting bigger in the ’90s, and,” he says, “we started to move with it,” booking such legends as Nas, Ms. Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar.

Beyond live music, Toad’s Place is also known for college dance parties, often on Saturday nights, with disc jockey-selected music. Besides students from Yale, the club draws from nearby Southern Connecticut State University, the University of New Haven, Quinnipiac University in Hamden and Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.

The club even offers shows for high school students and younger kids whose parents drop them off so they can dance to singers like Jacob Sartorius or Sammy Wilk and Derek Luh. “We couldn’t survive on the 21-and-over crowd,” Phelps says, noting the legal drinking age in Connecticut. For the under-21 shows, the club’s bar closes and only non-alcoholic drinks are served.

Besides the main room, Toad’s features two other smaller clubs within the building, Lilly’s Pad and the Rainforest room. Often on Monday nights, for example, jazz musician Rohn Lawrence & Friends, is a main staple in the Pad. He grew up in West Haven, and counts four generations in New Haven.

Over the years, Phelps has watched technology affect the music business. In the early years, to get word out about upcoming shows, “All we had to do years ago was put some advertisements in the New Haven Advocate, [the former alternative weekly newspaper] and some ads on [radio station] WPLR,” recalls Phelps.

Today Toad’s Place has an active Facebook page and uses Twitter regularly. Its huge database, based on online ticket purchases, allows staff to email fans about specific acts.

Of course, pulling off any production takes local manpower. On busy nights, up to 60 men and women from New Haven and nearby work behind the scenes, led by Phelps, general manager Ed Dingus and office manager Hollis Martin. Included are bartenders, bar-backs or runners, waitresses, security personnel, cashiers, sound and lighting engineers, loaders and city police officers. On sold-out nights, add a city fire marshal.

Ironically, when Phelps started working at Toad’s he was hardly into music. But he learned the ropes. And anyone who loves music has found their way or heard about Toad’s Place. Says Phelps: “Most people in the area have been here one time or another.

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  • Leonard Felson
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    It was a landmark in the entertainment world: a theater where stars were born, the go-to spot for tryouts bound for Broadway, the home to all of Rogers and Hammerstein’s world premieres. Even its marquee, proclaiming “The Shubert,” played a cameo in the 1950 movie “All About Eve,” starring Bette Davis. The context, like in so many other films about the theatre world of that period, made reference to “going to New Haven.” In those days, that meant the cast and crew were traveling to the Shubert to test whether their show was ready for the bright lights of New York. “That’s what this New Haven landmark was known for,” Anthony Lupinacci, the theater’s spokesman, says of the venue that opened in 1914. Close enough to New York, the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, named by brothers Lee and J.J. Shubert in memory of their brother, regularly was the first stop for plays opening as a shakedown run, usually moving on to Boston or Philadelphia before landing on Broadway. But nothing is constant. By the mid-1970s, New Haven faced many of the undercurrents then plaguing many dying industrial cities in the Northeast. College Street, where the Shubert stands, was all but deserted. Buildings were boarded up. Unless you were teaching or studying at Yale, who wanted to go to New Haven? Indeed, the once grand theater was almost demolished after the unthinkable occurred in 1976: it closed. Was it any surprise? And then, like a dramatic turnaround from the depths, came Act 2. Civic-minded residents, business leaders, and city officials joined forces, insisting they had to save the beloved Shubert. Without it, they reasoned, how would New Haven lure theater lovers back to catch a show, dine out, maybe even shop in what was once known as a wonderful commercial center? The revival didn’t occur overnight. 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It was, after all, the only way in a pre-internet era to get the word out to ticket holders in Connecticut and those planning on coming in from New York.Harrison’s publicist knew what that meant, and he went back to the actor, imagining the headlines, “Rex Harrison Refuses to Go On,” and told him bluntly, “If you don’t go on, you’ll never work again. Your career will be finished.” They talked and the publicist returned to Bailey and said, “OK, he’ll do it.”Over the years, the hits kept coming to the Shubert. Other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows premiered on the stage including “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” and “The Sound of Music.”Dramas included Tennessee William’s premiere of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” where Marlon Brando was introduced to the world. Other future stars who got their start at the Shubert include Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable and Gene Kelly. 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  • Leonard Felson
    Sep 11, 2018

    The legacy of Eli Whitney and his family lives on generations later. How often do you drive down Whitney Avenue or through the Whitneyville section of Hamden, pass by the Eli Whitney Technical High School, or admire gorgeous Lake Whitney, and think about the names and their history?Like many of our routines, too often we take those signposts and landmarks for granted, unfamiliar with – or having forgotten – the contributions to our society they were intended to honor.Of course, we have American inventor Eli Whitney (1765-1825) to thank for those dedications. His invention of the cotton gin (a machine that quickly and easily separates the cotton plant’s seeds from the fibers used to create fabric) was incredibly important in world economic history, notes Douglas W. Rae, a professor of political science and management at Yale.It was in New Haven where Whitney actually invented the cotton gin, one of the key inventions of the Industrial Revolution. 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Yet it was Whitney who had the original idea and tried to implement it in his New Haven factory, making muskets for the federal government soon after ratification of the U.S. Constitution in the late 1700s.“Let’s say that a musket or any other thing has 50 parts,” explains Rae. “I should be able to take part 23 from one copy of the musket and exchange it with part 23 of another copy without modifying the part. The basic industrial system that was 19th-century New Haven was all about that,” he says.While Whitney didn’t quite perfect that process, he inspired others to follow in his footsteps. Traces of that industrial system can be seen throughout New Haven – in the Whitney Avenue historic district that includes the former Winchester Repeating Arms Company plant, in the city’s former tire and rubber manufacturing plants, and in the manufacturing operation that was Sargent & Company, and would become one of the largest suppliers and distributors of hardware in the nation.Whitney’s innovation wasn’t limited to the factory floor. In what is now the Whitneyville section of Hamden, stone houses for his employees were built; they’re believed to be the first example of employer-provided housing in American history.A famous portrait of Whitneyville, done in 1827 by William Giles Munson, hangs at the Yale University Art Gallery. 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The origins of that water venture can be found in his peach-colored water tank, at the top of East Rock off Deepwood Drive in Hamden.Whitney Jr. personified the great industrialists of the post-Civil War years, according to Peter Dobkin Hall, who taught at Yale, Wesleyan and Harvard. Men like Whitney Jr., Oliver Winchester – the New Haven manufacturer who created the Winchester repeating rifle – and other contemporaries including Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller, made their mark by their sheer will and the trust lenders put in them.“Investors in the Gilded Age bet on personalities, not on managerial methods; on friendship and kinship, not on balance sheets and projections of anticipated earnings,” Hall writes in an article titled, “Images of Innovation: The New Haven Water Company, 1894-1906.”“Entrusting the construction of the New Haven Waterworks, as it was originally called, to Eli Whitney, Jr.,” writes Hall, “was no more than a statement of trust in Whitney as a person. He had neither knowledge of nor experience in public water supply systems. … His motives for being involved in the water project at all had more to do with his desire to consolidate his manufacturing operations than to supply the public with water.”Lake Whitney came about when, in 1860, Whitney Jr. enlarged the dam he had built at his mill, creating a reservoir that eventually became a major water source for the metro New Haven area until it was discontinued in the 1900s.The water company, which grandson Eli Whitney III (1847-1924) eventually led as company president in 1894, remained a private enterprise until 1977, when the Connecticut legislature created the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority, serving the area’s recreational, environmental and water needs.Eli Whitney Sr. was born in Westborough, Massachusetts in 1765. Though his father was a farmer, the son was a talented mechanic, designing a nail forge and a violin as a youth.After graduating from Yale, he moved to the South, where he planned to work as a private tutor. He was living on a plantation known as Mulberry Grove near Savannah, Georgia, and while there, learned about cotton production and the challenges farmers faced making a living. As they say, the rest is history.Like other Connecticut cities, New Haven no longer is the industrial engine it once was, but the signs of Whitney’s influence are everywhere if you stop to look.“There are about 25,000 buildings in New Haven, counting everything,” says Rae. “Of those, a majority were constructed between the Civil War and World War I, and they represent New Haven’s industrial era.” Facebook Twitter Google+ Share
  • Leonard Felson
    Sep 11, 2018

    Strap on your seatbelt for a rip-roaring tale about the ups and downs of rollercoaster culture in Connecticut. New or old, roller-coasters play a special role in the state’s history of summer fun. Lake Compounce, the oldest continually operating park of its kind in the nation, opened in 1846. That’s when Gad Norton added picnic tables and nature trails around the lake at his Bristol farm in the Connecticut foothills. Boats and a bowling alley followed. Other amusement parks around Connecticut flourished, too, by the late 19th century and early 20th century, as technology grabbed hold of American society and culture. The trolley car was a game-changer. By the early 1900s, more than 1,000 miles of trolley tracks linked towns across Connecticut. Lake Compounce was served by the Bristol and Plainville Tramway Company. Another trolley line brought visitors to the park from Meriden, Southington and points south. In many cases, the trolley companies – 19 state-wide at one point – built the amusement parks themselves, often locating them at the end of their lines to increase weekend ridership and capitalize on a growing trend: city workers wanted to spend more of their leisure time in the country and escape from reality. Across the United States, rail companies owned and operated more than 1,000 amusement parks. Many failed after the Great Depression of 1929 and during the lean economic times during World War II. Coasters were the highpoint of a park visit. The first electrically powered wooden roller coaster, the Green Dragon, debuted at Lake Compounce in 1914. In 1927, it was replaced by the Wildcat, another wooden coaster, which boasted an 80-foot drop at one point. Passengers raced along a 2,746-foot long track at 48 miles per hour, reaching heights of 85 feet. The ride lasted all of a minute and a half; to some, that felt like eternity. Besides coasters, parks featured carousels and other rides, and entertainment was a major feature. At Lake Compounce, for example, a young juggler who drew crowds was named Orson Welles (yes, that Orson Welles). The magician Harry Houdini entranced visitors. So did an upcoming musician named Benny Goodman. Over at Lake Quassapaug, the forerunner of Quassy Park, the Connecticut Trolley Company brought residents from Waterbury to the Middlebury lake, starting in 1908. Attractions included swimming, a picnic grove, dancing and a carousel. It didn’t become a full-fledged amusement park until after World War II. The Little Dipper roller coaster, installed in 1952 as part of Kiddieland, a quartet of rides, has drawn millions of young guests over the years. Tiny in comparison to mega roller coasters, the Little Dipper has a 220 foot track and a 12-foot lift hill. “It’s been a staple of the park for generations,” says Quassy’s president, Eric Anderson, who rode the mini-coaster as a youngster. In 1960, Quassy installed a coaster for adults, the Wild Mouse, though it was dismantled in 1983. Its replacement, the Mad Mouse, a 1966 coaster from Playland in Rye, New York, was sold and dismantled in 2010 to make way for Quassy’s first all-wooden coaster. Installed in 2011, the Wooden Warrior was an instant hit, despite its small track of 1,250 feet and maximum height of 35 feet (because of the park’s topography, the Warrior actually drops more than 40 feet along its course). Last year, Amusement Today, a trade magazine, ranked it 38th among the Top 50 wooden coasters, most of which are two to three times larger, says Quassy spokesman Ron Gustafason. Other parks, relics of the past, boasted roller coasters, too. Among them, Savin Rock in West Haven, once considered the “Coney Island of Connecticut,” drew visitors along the Connecticut shoreline and beyond. Most visitors came by trolley in the early 1900s, and the New Haven Street Railroad invested in several attractions, including band concerts featuring John Philip Sousa. In 1900, Savin Rock unveiled a figure-eight roller coaster, and the Racing Coaster shortly after, though both were short-lived, replaced by the White City Flyer in 1914. Several years later, a fire there swept it away along with other attractions. But in 1922, another pier was erected called Liberty Pier on Beach Street, and it included The Devil, and Thunderbolt, the latter Savin Rock’s most famous coaster, which opened in 1925. Riders of the 85-foot tall Thunderbolt swore that during its big drop, they felt certain that the coaster train was heading straight into Long Island Sound. The Red Devil fell victim to a raging 12-hour fire in 1932 and most of Thunderbolt was washed out to sea on September 24, 1938, when a hurricane with 88- mile-per-hour winds lashed at the coaster and other attractions. Its successor, the Thunderbolt Giant Flyer, operated until 1956. It was never considered as exciting as the original, according to historians and coaster fans, and was torn down in 1957. At Bridgeport’s Pleasure Beach, George C. Tilyou, owner of Steeplechase Park on Coney Island, New York, saw an opportunity, purchasing the beach in 1905 and calling it Steeplechase Island.  He installed a figure-eight coaster around 1908 and the Sky Rocket roller coaster in 1922, but neither lasted long. During a fire in 1953, which ultimately decimated the park, firefighters climbed atop a roller coaster to put out the fire. The park reopened, but shut down six years later. Waterbury’s Lakewood Park, which opened in 1930, also featured a wooden coaster, but it ran only a few seasons before being moved to Canobie Lake Park in Salem, New Hampshire, where it continues to operate today. Today, the coaster industry remains competitive, with parks seeking to introduce the next sensation. In 2000, Lake Compounce introduced Boulder Dash, a wooden roller coaster traveling 60 miles per hour with a drop of 115 feet; in 2002, it was voted world’s best wooden coaster by the National Amusement Park Historical Association. This season, the park launched the Phobia Phear Coaster, a coaster propelled by electromagnetic power to gain momentum before roaring over the steep track, the first of its kind in the Northeast, say Lake Compounce officials. The new coaster is the latest example of Connecticut playing a leading role in making roller-coaster history. Leonard Felson, a regular contributor to  Seasons , is a magazine writer whose passion for local history began at a young age.

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Leonard Felson